Paratactic Commons: Reappropriating Commons by the Folding of Digital Technologies

Yetiskin, E., Ertan, E. (2013) “Paratactic Commons: Reappropriating Commons By The 
Folding of Digital Technologies”, Mediacities: International Conference, Workshop, 
Exhibition, (der) Jordan Geiger, Omar Khan, Mark Shepard, 3-5 Mayıs 2013, University 
at Buffalo, State University of New York, New York, s. 31-38

Ebru Yetiskin, Istanbul Technical University
Ekmel Ertan, Sabanci University


What can we learn from the various uses of free software’s, copy-left movements, peer-2-peer and do-it-yourself systems, the logic of open source, and creative commons? With the aim of conceptualizing a contemporaneous version of commons, paratactic commons, the paper will focus on two best practices such as ‘The Hurricane Hackers’ of MIT Media Lab’ and ‘Mapping The Commons of Istanbul and Athens’ project of Pablo de Soto, Daphne Dragona, Aslıhan Şenel and Dimitris Delikonas and Jose Perez de Lama. By making the hidden data sensible and recognizable, while these specific practices of paratactic commons work within the spatial and temporal units of cities, they also operate and create the media cities.


“Commons can be defined by being shared by all, without becoming private for any individual self or institution” (De Soto et al. 2012). Although the term commons has long been associated with the enclosure movement from the 15th to 19th centuries in which the landed gentry conspired with Parliament to privatize forests and pastures that commoners collectively relied upon for subsistence (Williams 1973), today, firstly commons has gained a different meaning for managing shared resources especially after the rising use of new media technologies in 1990s. And secondly commons became immanent alternative concepts and tactics against the hegemony of dominant power, for a more democratic, tolerant, and pluralist society, which allow more active participation and heterogeneous collectivities. For example Ostrom (Ostrom 1990) demonstrated how communities could sustainably manage fisheries, irrigation waters, wildlife and other natural resources without the management of a central power, without over-exploiting them, and without causing a tragedy via legitimate means.

In Istanbul, like in other megalopolises, the discussions around commons have recently been relevant especially with the increasing pressure of privatization and control of governments along with market actors over the shared assets of society. The market and the state tragically have become a decadent, self-interested duopoly committed to fostering privatization and commoditization of almost everything – from land and water to the human genome and nano-matter. The resulting market enclosures amount to a radical dispossession and disenfranchisement of commoners – and an anti-democratic, anti-social provocation that cannot continue indefinitely. “The tendency of nation-states to impose their ideological agendas onto citizens, and the conflicts and collaborations of a global consumerist economy that urge the rapid privatization of public goods have all taken a toll on the common values.” (De Soto et al. 2012). Commons that have been appropriated and captured both by the state and the market actors range from ecological unbalances, which result from the privatization of natural resources, to the ‘de facto’ privatization of judicial systems, which has led to the degradation of a justice that is common to all. Meanwhile, the ever-popularizing new media, beginning with the Internet itself as a common resource, has been an inspiration in revitalizing the idea of commons. The capacities offered by new media technologies have helped to better understand that information –access- is a ‘common’ as well as a human right.

With the increasing adoption and dissemination of new media technologies, bottom-up forms of social cooperation and collaboration are becoming more powerful, quasi-sovereign forces in societies today.  By their self-directed, self-organized and open dynamics, digital commons offer wider freedoms opposed to state and market actors that attempt to control everything. Emerging forms of commoners as well as the sorts of social practices, community relationships and personal identities that they cultivate are challenging many existing institutions of power, such as intellectual property law and conventional business models.

In this paper, we aim to discuss ‘how’ the operational and the organizational principles of new media technologies are used for commons. We conceptualize Paratactic Commons, as a result of our recent research that included an exhibition and a conference in which various interested actors shared and discussed their views and experiences in November 2012 in Istanbul. Paratactic, which is a concept adopted from linguistics, introduces a provisional side-by-side tactical actions of heterogeneous single units. As paratactic belongs to the middle-voice of a pre-modern era in which subject has not been formulated yet, it proposes the juxtaposition of individuals, organizations and sources without the use of a single coordinating and subordinating conjunction. Heterogeneous fragments are connected tactically with no particular order and hierarchy.

Paratactic Commons proposes not to transfer the responsibility (of creating meanings, works, affects for commons) to another, neither to a meta-discourse (where The Commons itself becomes one) nor to authorities such as the government, the state, the political leader or a CEO, but to take the responsibility and act with whatever the capabilities and competences that are possessed within the current circumstances. For this reason, paratactic commons is strongly related with decision-making process(ing). Instead of drowning in the passive progressive voice in which many established non-government organizations implicitly become the subsidiary reproducers of hegemony, paratactic commons are innovative and minor practices that use potential resources and users to realize other possibilities within current conditions. What we experience with paratactic commons is the emergence of a self-organized, tactical, volatile and open collective movements based on collaboration by peer-to-peer production.

More specifically, Paratactic Commons can be a form of Crisis Commons, a global network of user-generated barcamp and hackathon events, such as conferences, workshops and artistic projects that reconcile the interested actors along with volunteer techies who specialize in crisis-response innovation. Nevertheless what considered, as ‘crisis’ by users is somewhat diverse. It can range from natural disasters to urban catastrophes that are also linked to political economic and cultural crisis situations. For example, after Hurricane Sandy in the US Hurricane Haiti earthquake in 2009, thousands of volunteers stepped up to deal with the humanitarian crisis by building Web-based translation tools, people finders and maps showing routes to empty hospital beds. Having aesthetic and economic concerns about a cultural crisis (Schultz 2013), who developed an experimental business model as an artistic project in which the availability of downloads is correlated to vinyl sales, redesign market perception and resolve market pressures with market incompatibilities. The outcome of this paratactic commons act will be the residue of objects that takes many forms, from records, downloads, and checks, to transactions, experiences and perceptions that would mark a movement generating from ideas, and not the other way from objects to ideas. Schultz (2013) emphasizes that the subversive pivot between the two is based on how the participation of the audience and direct points of contact with music is curated.  In a similar fashion, focusing on the crisis of copyright, (Delaney 2013) proposes political remix video, a genre of filmmaking that operates where the culture of cut, copy and paste manipulation goes unquestioned by the remixer, as a sort of paratactic commons. By detouring cultural artifacts such as films, television programs and music videos the remixer is violating copyright law in the acquisition of such content, and is in additional violation by manipulating these images for further distribution. In ‘The Non-Space of Money or The Pseudo-Common Oracle of Risk Production’, (Nestler 2013) focuses on the anarchic aspect of financial derivatives as paratactic commons and critically engages with the practice of rationalizing uncertainty and querying the unknown via financial tools. Furthering these examples, we want to concentrate on specific cases for better understanding and manifesting the qualities of paratactic commons. 

Hacking The Commons: Hurricane Hackers

A 2012 incident of paratactic commons is Hurricane Hackers; a group of volunteer hackers concentrated in MIT’s Media Lab arose in response to Hurricane Sandy in the US to provide network-coordinated aid by increasing civic participation to those who have effected by the storm. Hurricane Hackers’ aid was concentrated on tracking, collecting, categorizing, analyzing, translating and sharing data that were free-floating in the virtual space. These data-catchers and data-translators sometimes used common collaborative documents such as Google.doc to increase the participation of peers and invite citizens to use cell phone cameras, motion sensors, GPS and other electronic systems to gather and aggregate large amounts of data. In contrast to depletable commons of nature, such as forests, fisheries and irrigation waters, paratactic commons can be generative as digital resources can be copied and shared at virtually no incremental cost. As they are offering less formal management and usage protocols, they can propagate and grow in value with the participation of others provisionally. Paratactic commons are collaborative and participatory mechanisms that are nonproprietary. ‘’Sharing resources and outputs among widely distributed, loosely connected individuals who cooperate with each other” becomes one of the cruxes of paratactic commons (Benkler 2006).


Figure 1. Hurricane Hackers hackathon sign

By checking DNS servers, Hurricane Hackers accessed the data of power availability in different locations and communize data by making it useful and practical information. They tracked the word ‘blanket’ and matched those who have them with those who need them. Creating a fundraising application, they aimed to develop a system that can be deployed in under 2 hours that could accept and deliver donations to recipients and also securely thank the donator. What we are seeing here is the emergence of a temporal and decentralized managerial structure for coordination. In paratactic commons it’s not only all about relations, but also transactions.  However, it should be noted that paratactic commons is a way of turning the tide of the market/state by controlling alternative vehicles of value-creation. Operating as a crowd-sourcing and participatory (Figure 1) sensing project, Hurricane Hackers created ways for uploading names, images and testimonials of people who have lost their lives in the storm. Since it is an initiative under MIT Media Lab, they become a strong legitimizing actor for the institution’s credibility and promotion since they realize public services and decrease the costs of governments.

Mapping The Commons:

Property, privatization and government control are not common matters to be raised merely in times of crisis. They are involved in an ongoing process and an ongoing effort to keep commonwealth intact. A group called, developed an ongoing project with this critical perspective. They raised some questions as a start: Can the commons be mapped? Which is the new common wealth of the contemporary metropolis and how can it be located? What are the advantages and the risks of such a cartography in times of crisis? These questions and ideas were formed, conceptualized and supervised in order to offer a form of collective study, a contemporary reading and an online mapping tool for the cities and their unique dynamics. The effort to produce a short video of various urban commons in crisis addressed the important role of moving images in contemporary political language.

“Two groups of 20-25 architects, activists, artists, filmmakers and social scientists worked for more than a week in both cities respectively, developing collaborative mapping strategies and audiovisual languages, using open source software and participatory wiki-mapping tools. The final production featured an interactive online video-cartography complemented by secondary databases and analogue-paper productions” (De Soto et al. 2012: 205). The potentialities and capabilities of single units were collected temporarily for making invisible crises situations seen, heard and shared. In this way, by making minor crises events that are dispersed in the megalopolis and caused by legitimate economic and political actors would also be influential actors in democratic decision making mechanisms.

“Athens was mapped during a time of turmoil, when neo-liberal capitalism had started showing its demise as a system. People were extremely politically active in a climate when there was still a lot of optimism for resistance. On the other hand Istanbul was mapped during a time that an economic upheaval was taking place, huge investments and architectural projects were being designed around the city” (De Soto et al. 2012: 210). “At a time when Istanbul is being transformed radically with large-scale privatizations and constructions due to increasing pressures of neo-liberal politics, it becomes an urgent necessity to think and act in order to (re)claim commons in the city. Commons in Istanbul, such as open spaces, the right to inhabit in the city, the right to be informed of the governing and rebuilding of the urban spaces and the freedom of expression in these processes, communication platforms, and nature” (De Soto et al. 2012: 207).


Figure 2. Taksim Square, video excerpt.

Paratactic commons is a mode of incarnation of the multitude. Since the commons makes the multitude available as the foundational political subject, in this proprietary world, the commons has an ethical resonance retained as a residue of solidarity and eco-consciousness. With this regard, it is very interesting that memory is considered as a shared space and time for those who have differences among each other that can connect and participate in Paratactic Commons. Destruction and reconstruction of the common sites of collective memory is linked to the sovereignty of the state and market actors that speak for the commons. For this reason, paratactic commons is generating immaterial labor, the labor that produces the informational and cultural content of the commodity (Lazzarato, 1996) in many ways. For example in Istanbul, as a space of collective memory, “Taksim Gezi Park is one of these common sites, where the former barrack building on site is planned to be re-built from scratch in order to house privately controlled cultural and commercial activities (Figure 2). Taksim Square is now a construction site since November 2012 to be transformed into a large empty space devoid of public density. While in transformation, common memory of the citizens for these places is permanently destructed and erased” (De Soto et al. 2012: 208). It revealed a crisis situation that is not considered as ‘crisis’ by political and market actors as their acts found the legitimate basis in law. Where for Locke and Hobbes a barbaric and violent commons preceded the enclosures that established real and rightful proprietary relations, for Hardt and Negri it is the post-natural concept of private property that is in danger of becoming “ever more detached from reality” (Hardt and Negri 2000).

As an instant intervention network practice, “Mapping the Commons Workshop in Istanbul played an intermediary role in understanding and revealing the conflicts in relation to commons, raise discussions around the concept of commons, and most importantly be a part of the action in Istanbul to create paratactic commons, and furthermore map through videos these historical moments when commons are actualized. For this, the workshop initially took place in the street, through, for example, interviewing and filming in Fener-Balat-Ayvansaray, where a common discussion platform was successfully created against the new law of transformation of urban space, in Taksim Square, filming, discussing, and occupying of the square for common use against the authoritative projects, in Tarlabaşı, participating a Kurdish street wedding and a kitchen for the support of immigrants, and in Istanbul Technical University, participating and interviewing at a demonstration to claim communication space for employment security” (De Soto et al. 2012: 209). All data were collected from various crisis situations within the city’s everyday life, translated as practical information for democratic participation, shared online as an immediate political and a cultural reaction and intervention.


Paratactic Commons constitutes itself in forms that are immediately collective in the form of productive and innovative units of networks and flows for specific ad hoc projects. Precariousness, hyper-manipulation, swarming and self-organization are the most obvious characteristics of paratactic commons, organized by metropolitan immaterial labor that manage and produce non-professional capacities for the sake of commons. Commons are folded in paratactic commons because paratactic commons are volatile peer-to-peer actions and organizations that neither state nor market actors could and would form. Folding of the operational and the organizational logic of new media technologies that create pluralities of social and political actions is one of the key features of paratactic commons.

As ‘‘The role of immaterial labor is to promote continual innovation in the forms and conditions of communication (and thus in work and consumption), paratactic commons transforms the user by adding values (from knowledge to relations) and generates new and dynamic social interactions of innovation, production, and consumption for the sake of commons. Forming and generating connections, paratactic commons has value in itself but most importantly paratactic commons fosters other connections for commons, which becomes an augmented value perhaps.

Paratactic commons represent a new kind of social/biological metabolism for creating law as well because they have their own internal systems for managing their affairs and for interacting with their environment. They can renovate themselves and define their own persistent identity. Performing small tasks for achieving big goals through synergistic communication, they have a sovereignty of moral purpose and action that competes with functions historically performed by markets and government.  Paratactic commonssinga


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